In Hong Kong, Short-Lived Censorship Hints at a Deeper Standoff

For a few days, it looked as if the Hong Kong police had succeeded in a first foray at foreign censorship.

A group of exiled activists said a website they put up to call for greater democratic freedoms in the city had been taken down on Monday by Wix, the Israeli company hosting it. Nathan Law, one of the activists, posted images on Twitter of a letter written by the Hong Kong police to Wix, demanding the company take down the site or face a fine and six months of imprisonment for an employee.

Three hours after Mr. Law’s tweet, Wix reversed course. The company restored the site and issued an apology. A company spokeswoman said that the site had been removed by mistake and that the company was reviewing its process for screening takedown requests.

Though brief, the botched takedown was the first publicly known instance of the police’s using their broad new powers to cut online speech happening far away from the city. And it hinted at deeper digital tensions in Hong Kong.

Long a bastion of internet freedom on the border of China’s tightly controlled internet, Hong Kong faces a new online reality in which a national security law has criminalized speech and gives the authorities broad surveillance and censorship powers. Already, it has constricted online life in Hong Kong. The police have hung a camera outside the house of one prominent politician, broken into the Facebook account of another and demanded passwords and fingerprints from the people they arrest to get access to their phones.

For tech companies the law also holds the potential to change how they operate in the city. It enables the police to arrest employees and seize equipment if internet firms don’t follow rules and take down content deemed illegal. The Hong Kong police said in an emailed statement that they did not comment on specific cases.

Bigger clashes loom with larger internet platforms, like Google, Facebook and Twitter. All three of the American companies said last year after the law was put in place that they had stopped responding to takedown requests from the Hong Kong government. It’s unclear what would happen if the firms, some of which have offices in the city, received a letter like the one Wix did.

It’s unknown whether the police have sent similar letters to other firms. But a constellation of other private companies that do the bulk of online hosting for users like Mr. Law could be targeted. Amazon, for example, runs some of the servers that Wix uses, and has servers in Hong Kong.

“Companies increasingly must walk a tightrope between protecting their bottom line and preserving their global reputation,” said Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in online communication. “This is part of a larger trend of Chinese censorship and repression no longer confined within Chinese borders, but increasingly going transnational.”

Mr. Law, 27, said he and other activists had set up the site from outside Hong Kong. A New York Times check on the digital route taken by traffic to the site showed that it was hosted by servers in the United States.

Mr. Law said he had gone back and forth with a representative at Wix since Monday, when the site first disappeared. At the time, the company told him that there was a legal takedown request and that the site was in violation of the company’s terms of service. Later, the company sent Mr. Law the letter from the Hong Kong police, which said the site was a threat to national security.

The site contains a letter, addressed to Hong Kongers who have fled the city, that calls for them to unite in striving for democracy in the city. It also calls for the repeal of the national security law, urges the reform of policing in Hong Kong and criticizes the authoritarian rule of China by the Chinese Communist Party.

“We strive for Hong Kong’s democratic transformation, to realize the freedom, autonomy and democracy that were promised to Hong Kong,” reads a part of the letter. Visitors to the site can sign onto the document, called the “2021 Hong Kong Charter.”

Mr. Law said the website did not encourage violence. “It does not do anything that would be considered illegitimate in liberal countries, but the government can always quote the national security law” to rule that a site is illegal, he said.

“So yes indeed, we will face more similar events in the future,” he added.

In January, Hong Kong’s biggest mobile telecom companies severed access to a local Hong Kong website that listed the personal information of police officers. The move heightened long-held fears that censorship rules as strict as China’s could be ushered into Hong Kong in the coming years.

This week, authorities said they would soon require residents to use their real identity when purchasing cellular services. A similar system in China helped regulators end online anonymity and empowered a force of internet police officers who question and sometimes jail the most outspoken.

Although he was encouraged by Wix’s response, Mr. Tsui said resistance from tech companies to police orders could push the authorities to take matters into their own hands and, as in China, start blocking more websites directly.

“It’s tricky for Hong Kong,” he said. “If the government cannot get platforms to take down content, this will only increase the likelihood of a version of the great firewall being introduced in the city.”

The targeting of a smaller platform like Wix was indicative of a strategy to start with smaller targets before increasing enforcement, Mr. Law said. He called for countries to make rules that protect online speech. “Otherwise, we’re relying on small companies to fight giant governments by themselves,” he said. “This is not realistic.”

Mr. Law noted that one tweet did what three days of haggling with the company could not.

“I hope they have updated the guidelines for how to deal with these absurd requests from authoritarian regimes and protect free speech without complying with them,” he said.

Lin Qiqing and Aaron Krolik contributed research.

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